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Facts about sigiriya

Updated on July 11, 2015

Citadel of Sigiriya

The sight is magnificent even today: a massive monolith of red stone rises 600 feet from the green jungle to emphasize the lucid blue of the sky. How overpowering, then, this rock fortress must have been when it was constructed 15 centuries ago. Sigiriya was no forbidding fortification, as many other citadels are. Today it is perhaps the single most remarkable memory for visitors to Srilanka.

A moat filled with crocodiles once guarding the entrance to Sigiriya after which the water gardens can be seen. Sigiriya is said to have got its name because of its genuine entrance which is through the open jaws and throat (giriya) of a lion (sinha) whose likeness was once sculpted halfway up the monolith. Only the gigantic paws remain today. Within a grotto on Sigiriya’s west face, beautiful bare-breasted maidens still smile from incredible fresco paintings. Surrounding the foot of the rock, extending for several hundred meters, are Asia’s oldest surviving landscape gardens which includes a handful of hand-carved lovely ponds.

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The parricide king

The site of Sigiriya was known from ancient times. Inscriptions on boulders confirm that it was a hermitage for Buddhist monks from an early date. Its importance as a royalty began and ended in the last quarter of the fifth century, under the direction of a mad genius names Kasyapa, who constructed this masterpiece under a shadow of paranoiac fear.

Kasyapa was the eldest son of Anuradhapura’s King Dhatusena, the great tank builder. Fearing that he would be succeeded by his younger half brother Moggollana (whose mother was of royal blood while Kasyapa’s mother was a commoner) Kasyapa seized the throne and imprisoned his father. Moggollana fled to India. Kasyapa demanded that his father reveal the wealth he was convinced had been hidden. Dhatusena took him to the bund of the Kalawewa, the greatest of Dhatusena’s irrigation works, “There” said pointing “are all the treasures that I possess.” Outraged Kasyapa walled alive his father within his tomb.

Fear and arrogance drove Kasyapa to construct his palace on Sigiriya Rock. Seven years after his ascent to the throne in 477 AD, Kasyapa moved into his fabulous new palace. Eleven years after, he descended from his stronghold to meet Moggollan, who has returned from India with an army. Kasyapa was defeated in the battle and his death was extra-ordinary just like his life. It is said “He drew the dagger, cut his own throat, raised the blade high in the air, and stuck it back in its sheath before falling.”

Sigiriyan graffiti

Although Moggollan immediately moved his capital back to Anuradhapura, Sigiriya was not instantly forgotten. Foe at least 500 years after the death of Kasyapa, sightseers scaled the citadel to gape at the Sigiriya Maidens and admire the view. Srilanka’s oldest graffiti verifies this. Incised in tiny pearl like script into the so called Mirror Wall are prose and poems more than 1000 years old. Today, most of the three-meter high Mirror Wall has fallen and no one is likely to mistake for the part built by the Archaeological Department. The true wall is distinguished by the extra-ordinary coating of polished lime which still today, 1500 years later, gleams and reflects like glass.

The Mirror Wall held the magnificent walkway called the Gallery against the rock face. Visitors pass this route immediately after they have climbed the caged spiral staircase to the phenomenal frescoes pocket of the Sigiriya Maidens. No one quite knows whom the seductive beauties represent. It is easy to think of them as apsaras, angels from heaven, above who lived the “god-king” in his rock-top palace. The graffiti speak of 500 “damsels”, there are but only 18 today, protected from sun, wind and rain erosion in this sheltered grotto. In 1967, a vandal obliterated several of these priceless treasures, fortunately they were restored by Dr. Marenzi, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute.

The pathway toward the rock’s summit leads from the frescoes along the Mirror Wall and up to the Lion Terrace. Bounded on three sides by a low parapet and on the fourth by sheer cliff, it is a beautiful site. The gigantic lion which once crouched here was a massive romantic architectural concept. Today one has to climb through two clawed paws to reach the steep stairwell and windblown railing leading to the summit.

The entire summit of Sigiriya, nearly three acres in extent, was occupied by buildings. Running water trickled through channels beneath the floor of the moat, colonnaded Royal Summer House. Bathing pools were cut out of the living rock. Below and to the east, a canopied divan was carved from naked rock.

Several Buddhist religious sites can be identified among other rocks. In the Cobra Hood Cave, so named because of the way the rock looms over it, an inscription dates to second century BC and faint remains of paintings can be observed on the ceiling. A Cave Vihara contains the undated torso of a Buddha statue. There are more traces of paintings on the ceiling of the Asana Chapel; its empty stone slab is believed to have been a throne for an absent Buddha, on which early monks meditated. To the North the so called Preaching Rock held tiered platforms for orating monks. A multitude of miniature niches are carved into the rock; on poya days, these held flickering lights of 100 oil lamps. At the main Western entrance to the Sigiriya compound, beckons the Water Garden. The symmetrically planned ponds may have been purely ornamental.

After many neglected centuries lost in the scrub jungle, Sigiriya was rediscovered by an incredible British hunter in the mid-19th century. From 1982 to 1987, under UNESCO and Cultural Triangle Project sponsorship, extensive digs and restoration were underway. Finds are exhibited at the small Archaeological Museum just west of the water garden, outside the main walls of the fortress.

Situated at the Matale district near to Dambulla, it would take about three hours to reach Sigiriya from Colombo.

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    • manilachamara profile image

      manilachamara 4 years ago from Sri Lanka

      Sigiriya is the most visited heritage site in sri lanka.if any one need more recent picture visit

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Wow how interesting was this.

      Brilliant; voted up and looking forward to many more.